Monday, July 29, 2013

My Trip to the Water Park

My husband and I brought a group of teenagers to the local water park this weekend.

There is no place on earth better for people-watching than a water park.

There was the bald man with a realistic face tattooed on the back of his head. When I saw him, he was facing away from me, talking and gesticulating wildly to his friends. (I suspect that’s the way he always talks.) The skin on the back of his head moved, making the tattooed face look like it was talking wildly too. I believe this tattoo, of all the ones I saw that day, falls into the category tattoo artists call “Job Killers,” as in, once you have this tattoo, you will never be hired again.

Or the woman who wore such heavy (and sparkly) eye make-up and such long and thick fake eyelashes that her eyes looked encrusted. And this, mind you, was to a water park! What’s going to happen when she goes into the water? (I didn’t get to see.) I was fascinated by her hair: perfectly straight here, perfectly curled there. (Again, what is this water park going to do to all her hard work?) And her (leopard skin AND sparkly) bathing suit had zippers and belt buckles and didn't seem meant for water. What was her thinking process, I wonder?

There we all were, so exposed in our bathing suits – and, boy, did I see a lot of different shapes and sizes – but even so, we were all flying our flags: bathing-suit styles, hairstyles, sunglasses, hats, make-up, jewelry, body language. Differences in socio-economic class were clear. You could also tell single versus married, parent versus non-parent, rural versus urban. You could tell personality.

And you could see all those tattoos to boot.

Wow. Just wow.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Do You See What I See?

Apparently not.

Clearly, people don’t truly know what they look like or what kind of impression they are making on other people or else midriff-baring tops, stretch pants and large tattoos would never have become as popular as they are.

I remember reading an article several years ago (which, of course, I can’t find now) about back pain and posture. The doctor being interviewed said people will correct how they stand by what they see in a mirror, adjusting until they look “right,” but he could see, when he looked at them from behind, how they were compensating.

I also remember when I was (I felt) early in my first pregnancy. One day, I saw my bus taking off from its stop. I ran to catch it.

When the driver let me on, he gasped, “Do NOT do that!” He could see I was pregnant?

Apparently so. Because I was on my way to see a friend who, when he saw me, exclaimed, “Whoa, look at you!”

 My body had changed shape so quickly, my awareness hadn’t kept up.

I also remember an exchange on the chat boards of many years ago. Someone had asked these New York City young mothers what their greatest regret was.  “Not knowing how beautiful I was when I was younger,” said one. Yup. It breaks my heart to see young women, like my high-school daughter and her friends, worrying so much about their appearance, wanting their hair to be straight when it’s curly (or vice versa) or about how their (insert body part name here) doesn’t look like the ones they see in the fashion shoots.

For most of us, our appearance seems so important, yet we can’t really see it. Odd.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

I Do Not Like Hats

Courtesy of imagerymajestic
Apparently, today was Stupid Hat Day and no one told me.

I saw, not one, but two ladies today wearing the same bizarre style of sun hat. They looked like cheap bridesmaids hats, circa 1970, made to look like lace but out of a stiff plastic, and they were tightly tied under each lady’s chin with a big bow.

Then, a few minutes later, I saw a grown man wearing what looked like a baby’s floppy white sun hat, also tied tightly under his chin.

Honestly, if I had a medical condition that required me to wear such a hat to go out into the sun, I’d turn vampire and only go out at night.

Hats, in my opinion, are generally a bad idea.

OK, there are some exceptions. As a New England girl, I am familiar with winter days when the temperature is 0 but the weatherperson chirpily tells you, “With the wind chill, it feels like negative 20.” On those days, yes, I’d give my right hand for a hat.

I particularly don’t like trucker hats, which, because of their high crowns and stiff, oversized brims, are cheaper- and dopier-looking than baseball caps. Wear a trucker hat and your IQ drops 10 points, 20 if you wear it sideways.

But the worst hat of all is the visor. I see the appeal: it gets your hair off your face and out of your eyes. But really, do you not care what it looks like at all? I particularly hate how it bunches up people’s hair like some kind of mushroom on the backs of their heads.

My family is under strict orders to shoot me dead if I ever start wearing a visor.

There’s no danger of that, though.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Does How You See Affect Who You Are?

Do people have different personalities depending on how their minds work?

The New York Times article that I’ve written about before, the one about the study showing that people who scored high on a test of spatial abilities had more success in the STEM fields than their equally academically gifted colleagues, was titled, “Study Finds Spatial Skill Is Early Sign of Creativity.”

I was thinking of this the other day when I visited an art museum with my own visual thinker, my 18-year-old daughter. As we entered each gallery, she would zero in on the most interesting piece of art in the room. Only after she had looked at it, would she read the placard.

I, the plodding verbal thinker, meanwhile, would read each placard first, then study each piece, methodically making my way around the room, skipping nothing.

Likewise, shopping with my daughter can be disorienting when you are not used to it. She is very fast. She steps into a store, takes a sweeping look around and either announces, “There’s nothing good in here” or goes straight to the one thing she likes.

At first, I used to protest, “You can’t possibly have seen everything!” Then, driving my daughter nuts, I would, in my methodical way, go through each rack.
But you know what? She was always right.

The other day, I investigated why my automatic garage door wasn’t opening. Someone else might have gone to the garage and had a look, played around with the device. But I pulled out the manual and read.

Which way is better?

That isn’t the right question to ask. Both have their value – but hers does seem a lot more fun.

(P.S. I still haven’t figured out why my garage door doesn’t work.)

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Visual Versus Verbal

A wall at Kingspoint Mullet, Houston, done by the FX Crew.
When I was interviewing graffiti artists for a recent article, I was struck by how not a single one of them, when telling me where their walls were, used a street address.

“It’s downtown,” they’d say, gesturing, “by that big blue building.”

If pressed, they’d admit they didn’t know street names, though they were all Houston natives very familiar with the neighborhoods we were discussing.

They were visual/spatial thinkers.

Meanwhile, I, a verbal thinker, had no idea where these walls were. I wanted needed an address, words, to type into my GPS, which, as I’ve mentioned before, does spatial thinking for me that I can’t do.

My children have learning differences. One has dyslexia (trouble with learning to read and with auditory processing but a gifted artist who has always been the one in our house to assemble and repair things) and one with dysgraphia (read easily, does very well on standardized tests, is very verbal, but can’t pick up a pencil and hand-write and has no sense of direction). Interestingly, these two issues, dysgraphia and dyslexia, though polar opposites, often run in the same families.

Different thinking styles are valuable – the person building your house or flying your plane should have good visual/spatial skills – but we ignore, and therefore waste, most of them. In a recent article in the New York Times, about a study on the importance of visual/spatial abilities in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) fields, the study’s lead author, David Lubinski, said, “Evidence has been mounting over several decades that spatial ability gives us something that we don’t capture with traditional measures used in educational selection … We could be losing some modern-day Edisons and Fords.”

Exactly. And when it comes to running our society, we need everybody’s best thinking.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Future Perfect?

I am a perfectionist, though you wouldn’t know it to look at me.

It bugs me when people flippantly use the term to describe themselves. You know, like in a job interview when they are asked, “What’s your worst fault?” and they answer, “Oh, I am such a perfectionist!”

Perfectionism is real and it’s not fun to have.

Some perfectionists, it’s true, have alphabetized spice drawers and sock drawers organized by color. All their papers are in order. Everything in their house, from their attics to their recycling bins, is ready for an Architectural Digest photo shoot. One woman, the first time I met her, in a playground in our new neighborhood, answered my question, “Who's your pediatrician?” by telling how she had begun researching and interviewing doctors before her child was born, then reeled off, from memory, not only her pediatrician’s number, but the numbers of several that she hadn’t, for various obsessive reasons, chosen.

Other perfectionists, like me, however, secretly believe we are supposed to do like that, but it’s just way too overwhelming … so we sit, amidst our funk, our piles of books and papers, our undone to-do lists, and feel bad.

Why are some people perfectionists, of either type?

I’m no expert and am only going by what’s in my own head, but I think it has something to do with a lack of patience, an inability to enjoy the present moment and the unshakeable belief that perfection is attainable. If only I could just stop being such a slug and try hard enough, if I could muster enough will power and focus (which I could, if I wasn’t such a jerk), I could, I think, attain this state someday.

Then again, I should have always been there, so I'd still be a failure.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Am I A Sucker?

When my husband was in medical school and we lived in the Bronx, we had an unnaturally close relationship with our mechanic.

He had sold us our car. He repaired it. He inspected it for the state. And he was the guy we were going to sell it back to when we were done with it.

We had originally picked him because his shop was within walking distance of our apartment. (An important consideration because our first car (which we had not bought from him) cost all of $300.)

In other words, we didn’t know this guy from a hole in the wall.

One day, though, when he was in line ahead of me in a pastry shop, I got to the cashier, my toddler on my hip, to buy my coffee and the baby’s cookie, and found that he had already paid for us.

From then on, I thought he was great.

I picked our current plumber because he puts funny things up on an LED sign in front of his shop, like “We’ll fix what your husband repaired” and “A straight flush beats a full house.”

However, hard-sell techniques do not work on me. I recently asked for online quotes for an insurance policy. Which was dumb, because now one company calls me multiple times a day, warning that I “must call NOW  because rates are going up.” For that reason alone, I am not choosing this company.

I don’t know about cars, plumbing or insurance and, let’s be honest, I’m not going to invest the time it takes to truly learn. As my husband (another guy I chose because of his sense of humor and willingness to buy me coffee) once pointed out, “Eventually, you just have to decide: ‘Do I trust them?’”

Thursday, July 11, 2013


Image courtesy of Vlado,
Still new to Houston, I pulled into a parking lot one evening at dusk. 

As I got out of my car, I realized there were hundreds, maybe a thousand, raucous birds in two nearby trees. They were LOUD, making weird mechanical sounds, like the creaks and groans my car makes when its struts are broken or like the metal coils of an old mattress or like the squeaky hinges of old doors.

Plus, their poop was accumulating, like snow, on the unfortunate cars beneath them.

I high-tailed it into the nearby Barnes & Noble.

“What the hell are those?!” I asked a clerk.

“I dunno,” he answered. Dimwit.

They were grackles. And they are all over Houston.

A cool website, 10,000 Birds, explains what they are and also introduced me to this poem by Ogden Nash:

The Grackle

The grackle’s voice is less than mellow,
His heart is black, his eye is yellow,
He bullies more attractive birds
With hoodlum deeds and vulgar words,
And should a human interfere,
Attacks the human in the rear.
I cannot help but deem the grackle
An ornithological debacle.

The comments on 10,000 Birds told of grackles attacking other birds at people’s feeders, particularly sparrows, and leaving the headless bodies strewn all over the yard. They will also clean their nests by carrying their babies’ poop in their beaks to drop in your pool. Charming.

Meanwhile, local news stories about people being dive-bombed by these birds – and others about how people try to get rid of them (or, rather, shoo them toward someone else), with artillery sounds and laser lights, falcons and hawks, like this one  and this one  and this one  – are just a Google search away.

Note to self: never park under a grackle tree.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Thinking about Death

We got a Jehovah’s Witness at our door the other day.

He was a pleasant man and his spiel was short: he handed me a pamphlet, told me it advertised an event at his church and thanked me. I smiled, thanked him back and shut the door.

Hey, I know one of his religious beliefs is that he has to go door-to-door. And if handing me a pamphlet makes him feel less scared about death, then I don’t mind spending ten seconds to take it from him.

However, I have never met an organized religion that did not have serious problems. For example, Jehovah Witnesses do not give their children birthday or Christmas gifts – or blood transfusions.

Though these things are deal-killers for me, they pale in comparison to some of the mind-bogglingly brutal things people have done, throughout history, in the name of their religions.

Look: We’re all scared of death, yet we are all going to die.

Even some people who aren’t religious start trading in magical thinking to make themselves feel better. They search for someone to blame, even the dying person themselves. “If he hadn’t smoked or if he had gone for his check-up,” they say, sometimes to the dying person’s face, “then he wouldn’t be dying. I’m safe.”

Nope. At some point, you’re going to die. The best you can hope for, as the older people in my family put it, is “a good death.”

And you are not going to know what happens after, until you are there.

Personally, I’m hoping there’s reincarnation. If I could have a do-over, there are some things – like being a college student – that I could knock out of the park now – and have a lot more fun while doing them, too.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Pay No Attention To Me

My mother tells me that when I was little, I used to come down in the morning, making eye contact with no one. But as I sat down to my cereal, I’d peer darkly at my family and, if I caught any of them looking, I’d holler, “Don’t look at my face!”

So, I was a weird kid.

I retain that weirdness. When I picked my 8th-grade son up at the airport, returning from his class trip to Washington, DC, a bunch of the parents were standing in baggage claim holding up a banner made by the most bustle-y super-mom in the class: “Welcome home, 8th Grade Class of XXX School!!! We love you!!!” 

Sweet, you say?

People smiled. (What else could they do? And some of those smiles were definitely smirks.)

I couldn't stand far enough away.

Am I just a party-pooper?

It seemed to me to be in the same league as men who hire sky writers to fly over televised sporting events in order to propose to the girlfriend who is sitting right next to them. (I wonder how many of those girlfriends say yes when in front of the television cameras only to say, “Hell, no” when those cameras are gone.)

Or like those scenes in movies where a couple has an argument in a public place and then passersby in the scene applaud when the cute couple finally makes up. Oh, please. My theory is that the people who make movies, such as actors, figure everyone loves to be the center of attention the way they do.

And then there are the people on reality television shows. “Don’t they know they’re being made fools of?” my kids will ask. Apparently not.

Just because someone is paying attention to you doesn’t mean it’s a good thing.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Sizing Myself Up

When I was 19 years old, I stood 5’8”, weighed a very skinny 120 pounds – and wore a size 10 or a Large. Always. There was no question.

Today, I am 48 years old, the same height and weigh 25 pounds more. And I am wearing a brand-new pair of shorts, a size 6.

But guess what? I should have bought the size 4. The waist on these is so big, I need a belt to keep them up.

Oh, come on!

I have once again fallen afoul of “vanity sizing.” Clothing companies have been adjusting their sizes over the years as people have become bigger. They figure that we, the shoppers, will feel so good about fitting into a smaller size that we will buy the garment.

It drives me nuts. I don’t like shopping as it is. (Imagine diving for rings in a pool: you take a deep breath, kick to the bottom of the deep end, and with your head hurting from the pressure, try to grab the rings before you run out of air. That’s how shopping is for me.)

I can see that it works, though. Some genius put the size labels – large block-letter S’s, M’s, L’s and XL’s – on the outside of the not-vanity-sized uniforms for my daughter’s high-school soccer team. Talk about “scarlet letter.” My freshman daughter desperately did not want to wear a L. Though not overweight, she thought people would see the L and think she was. I told her, to no avail, not to pay attention to the label, to get one that fits. But it wasn’t until she saw an older girl – the very nice, beautiful, soccer-star senior Ci Ci (whose part-time job was modeling) wearing a properly fitting L, that my daughter felt OK about it.

This should all be so much simpler than it is.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Mental Hygiene

I can’t find it now, but I once read a conversation on Amazon in which a teenage girl, a home-schooled Christian, whose reading materials had to be approved by her parents, asked for book recommendations. Many people replied, slyly recommending "subversive" books (like Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy) or criticizing her family for keeping her closed off from the world.

Another man answered these people (the girl was probably long gone by then) and said it was right for the girl’s parents to censor her books. He used the phrase “mental hygiene,” and said the Christian theory, or at least his version of it, was for parents to strictly control their children so that, when they were adults, they would retain the shape the parents had in mind for them. He said if the girl read “inappropriate” books, she wouldn’t learn from them, they would only “dirty” her mind.

Let me stress: I don’t agree with this.

However, this concept of “mental hygiene,” of keeping an eye on mental well-being, has something to it.

When I waste time on the internet (which is often), I sometimes amuse myself by going to peopleofwalmart and looking at all the sightings of bizarre people.

Or I go to the Sartorialist and look at this fashion photographer’s beautiful photos of people he sees on the street and read the comments by other people in the fashion industry as they discuss why that outfit looks as good as it does.

If I have recently been to peopleofwalmart, I find myself noting the ugliness and sadness around me.

If I have been to the Sartorialist, I find myself seeing the beauty.

What I've been looking at trains my eye to see more of the same. And what I've been seeing affects what I think and feel.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Personal Mottoes

Die Antwoord
Maybe personal mottoes are childish. 

Often, they're the flailings of  people who find themselves working in sales, desperately trying to steel themselves for rejection. Example: “The best is yet to BE!!” which I recently saw on the bottom of a business email.

However, I do have several that I’d like to use – on the bottom of emails, on voice mail, on a t-shirt, even on the welcome mat to my house, if only I had the guts.

On the bottom of my emails:

“Aw, fuck it. You win.”
From the song by Hanni El Kathib, which you can listen to here.

Or maybe

“If you can’t say anything good about someone, sit right here by me.”
                                                                        Alice Roosevelt Longworth

This wouldn’t inspire confidence in the people I am trying to interview for magazine articles, though. But, really, I don’t trust people who refuse to say anything bad about anyone or anything. I figure that, sooner or later, they’re going to blow.

Or maybe

“Yippie ki yay, motherfucker, I’m a BIG deal!”

As my voice-mail message:

“What fresh hell is this?!”
How the writer Dorothy Parker, in the days before voice mail, used to answer her phone.

(You’ve gotta know she would have loved the ability to screen.)

or just

"WHAT?!" (beep)

And what I’d like on the “welcome” mat to my house:

“Oh, happy freaking day, you’re here.”

On second thought, maybe I should keep my personal mottoes to myself.